Read Mark 10:17-31
When I was a teenager I remember watching a movie with my dad called ‘The Jerk.’ It’s a classic. Steve Martin at his best. There is a scene from the film where Navin, Steve Martin’s character, is arguing with his wife, Marie, about the man he’s become since becoming wealthy. As they argue Marie kicks Navin out of the house. But, as he leave he pushes a stack of papers off a desk saying, “I don’t need these things, I don’t need any of this…..except, this ashtray, this ashtray is the only thing I need.” He starts to leave the room, but he sees a paddle board game on the ground, picks it up and says, “I only need this ashtray and this paddle game, that’s it that’s all I need.” Almost out of the room, he sees a remote on the table, picks it up and says, “the ashtray, the paddle game and the remote control that’s all I need.”
As he makes his ways through the house he picks up matches, a lamp, and a chair. Pretty soon he’s walking out of the house completely weighed down by all the random stuff he’s picked up on his way. And he just keeps saying, “this is it, this is all I need, the ashtray, the paddle game, the remote control, these matches, this lamp, this chair, this is all I need.”
As I watched it again on Youtube this last week, I couldn’t help but think of our scripture text for this morning. The gospel lesson that we just heard read from the Gospel according to Mark. It is the perfect image to capture in a modern and humorous way the image we get from scripture today.
In the text for this morning Jesus is approached by a man who is seeking Jesus out to listen and learn from him. The man approaches Jesus with a sense of honor and respect as he kneels before Jesus and addresses Jesus as Rabbi, good teacher. It is apparent that this man not only has heard of Jesus but is seeking him out to learn the way to live an abundant life.
The man then asks Jesus a question, he says “teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” If you’ve read the New Testament it may seem like this is a question that Jesus is asked all the time.
But the fact is, this is the only time the phrase “eternal life” is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is much more interested in the kingdom of God, which is something that is yet to come for sure, but it is also drawing near…. the kingdom of God is something which is eternal and beyond this life and yet it is emerging right here and right now.
The man says to Jesus, “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, you know all the commandments: you shall not murder, commit adultery, lie steal or defraud anyone, honor your parents, etc. The man replies, yes, Jesus I know these commandments and I have kept them all. We see that this man is a devout person who has faithfully followed the commandments as he has received them.
What is Jesus’ response to the man? The text says that Jesus looked at the man and he loved him. He looked at the man with compassion and love and says to him, you have kept all of these commandments but there is one more thing you are missing, sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, follow me and you will have treasure in this life and the next.
It is a moment of confrontational love that was shocking for the man and not only the man but all who heard it. But, Jesus knows this man. Jesus knows him better than he even knows himself. He knows that he is wealthy and that his wealth has become the most important thing in his life. And it’s important to remember that Jesus says this with love, he says this with compassion for the man. He is not angry or judgmental, he isn’t trying to tear the man down, he is trying to build him up, to set him free, to refocus the man on what truly matters.
Jesus then goes on to teach that it is difficult, almost impossible for a wealthy person to enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus says, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. That’s one of those sayings that we have from scripture that’s really well known. It is a Jesus original. We don’t really know any other origin for it which is pretty amazing really.
As I was explaining to the children during the children’s moment, when I was traveling in the Holy Land we learned a lot about ancient architecture. In the ancient world, Jesus’ world, the main entrances to a city, a city gate was comprised of a large gate in the center with two small gates or passages on either side. At night they would close the main gate so only the smaller gate is open. It has been posited by some scholars that the side gates, given that they were smaller, were sometimes called the eye of the needle.
So perhaps what Jesus is saying, is that it is as difficult for a wealthy person to get into heaven as it is for a camel to go through one of these gates. Our guide who is a scholar and pastor claimed that if a camel were to make it through the gate they would not have been able to carry any baggage or things, just a rider. So maybe what Jesus is saying is we’ve got to give away our extra baggage in this life that’s weighing us down.
But let’s be real here: this is a tough text to understand and to read. Most of us, I dare say all of us, are really, really tied to our stuff. One of the reasons I find it so easy to laugh at the scene from ‘The Jerk’ is because in the absurdity of it all, I can see the truth underlying the scene: I’ve got a lot of stuff that I feel like I really, really need. But at the end of the day its just not really true, I don’t really need all the things I think I need.
But the thing is that this passage isn’t just about our stuff, although it is, it isn’t even just about wealth, although of course it is, it’s about something that goes deeper than that.
Let’s take a look at what Jesus is getting at here for us and our life of faith today. First, the man comes to Jesus with this question, what must I do to inherit eternal life? He is coming to Jesus with this question about what conditions he has to meet, what he must do or perform in order to earn his salvation. He’s also not living in the here and now; he’s living in a yet to be determined future. He’s got one foot out the door of this life so to speak. Maybe you know someone who lives this way.
They aren’t really tied down to the present moment because they are always looking for the next big thing that’s happening that they are supposed to be part of. They constantly live that old saying, the grass is greener on the other side. This man isn’t looking for the kingdom moments in this world, in this life, the moments of connection, the moments of love, the moments of forgiveness and grace, all the little moments where God’s presence is known and felt. He’s looking for a way out of all of this in order to move onto something better.
When you live in this way you aren’t present to the current moment, you aren’t here with your feet planted firmly on this ground. You’re off living in the clouds. The problem with this way of living is that you are missing out on experience the fullness of this life, in all of it’s glory, and it’s suffering. If you are constantly living with one foot out the door then you aren’t really investing in relationships with those who are around you and everything in your life is more transactional: if I do this, then I’ll get that.
The gospel of Jesus butts up against this way of living and challenges it for what it is, surface level living. Jesus wants us to have a whole life, a full life, a healed life, a free life. That doesn’t come to us if we are constantly trying to be somewhere other than where we are!
Jesus teaches us to be attentive to each and every moment in all of its glory, all of its suffering, even if it’s mundane and kind of boring, because as we practice his way of living we come to see that every moment of our life is sacred, every moment is full and never empty, full of the grace of God who dwells with us, abides with us in love, no matter what.
So in Jesus’ answer to this man’s question, what must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus challenges the man’s major spiritual issue- the attachment he had to his stuff, his wealth. Jesus says, if you want to experience the kingdom of God, the fullness and richness of an abundant life, you have to be willing to give it all away, to detached yourself from all of your stuff, your wealth, your own power, and trust fully in God’s power, God’s grace and God’s goodness.
Jesus says to him give it all away and follow me no matter what, no matter how difficult the road and how uncertain the destination, trust in God more than you trust in yourself, recognize that you need a power greater than your own to save you, instead of thinking, you know what I got this. Jesus says that if you want to inherit eternal life, you have to be willing to let go, to surrender it all to me and to God.
Man that’s challenging stuff. That’s tough stuff because each of us, no matter who we are and how spiritual we are, each of us has attachments to things in this life that aren’t God. Each of us trusts in something to save us other than God. We all look to something else in this world, to make us whole, to set us free.
Whether it’s money, a relationship, whether it’s the promise of a politician or the power and prestige of a job, we sometimes seek all of these external things to try to fill an inner void or incompleteness. Jesus is saying to the man, and to us all, that these things only satisfy for a little bit, they only work for a little while, eventually something is going to give and you will find that same sense of inner incompleteness because these things are of the world and not of God.
And the key to living a whole life, a life set free by God’s perfect love, is by being willing to let go of everything else and live in the flow of God’s humble sacrificial love always, to be willing to give it all away, in love, to build a bigger, better, more inclusive world, the kingdom of God in our midst.
I’ve talked with lots of people in the church over the years and when we talk about giving of ourselves, giving our financial gifts or the gift of our loving service, there’s this one theme that always seems to emerge: when we give of ourselves, when we give our money away to the church or we give our time and energy to make someone’s life better,
people will say- Pastor, I get so much more out of it than those I’m serving, or when I give my money away I get so much more in return. Usually this is followed up with a question- is that ok? It feels like it’s selfish to get so much when we give of ourselves.
It’s not selfish to feel that feeling of wholeness when we give ourselves away in love, that’s the gift of God’s grace, that’s what Jesus is getting at here, when we give ourselves away that’s when we get it, that when we experience the fullness of God’s love for us because God is self-giving love, poured out constantly for each of us, making us whole, complete, free from all other attachments in this world.
So the key to journeying in this faith together is that in order to keep it, you’ve got to give it away. In order to stay in alignment with God’s will for you, for us and for our world, we need to be willing to give it away. We need to be open to and to seek out ways to be of service to others in this world. It doesn’t mean that we have to travel to a 3rd World Country to participate on a service trip, that’s an awesome experience no doubt, but to paraphrase Mother Teresa, don’t worry about the size of the good you do, don’t worry about how big your gift or your service is, just help others, and always start with those who are closest to you and work your way out from there.
As we go about this week, may the spirit of Christ meet us where we are at, may Jesus point out to us to all those things in our life we are too attached to, may he call us to a willingness to give it all way in his service, the service of building the kingdom of God, where the last are first, where the lost are found, where the poor and the weak are made strong and whole in grace, where all are welcomed as children of the most high God. May it be so. Amen.